On the question of the inerrancy of the Bible
One of the things that many evangelicals agree upon is that the Bible is “inerrant.” In popular understanding, inerrancy seems like magical reasoning, but in technical expressions, it isn’t any better. When challenged on various problematic readings of the text, inerrantists say the Bible is inerrant “in the original autographs.” But we don’t have the original autographs, and unless the copies we have are sufficiently credible on their own, affirming belief in something that is not available to us avails us nothing.
Not affirming inerrancy doesn’t mean I don’t think the Bible is true, nor does it mean that I think its authority is less than plenary. I’m not alleging any errors in the Bible, nor dividing it into “buckets” and saying what’s in some of the buckets can be declared outdated or not God’s will. I’m not casting doubts upon the inspiration of the Bible. I’m just saying that inerrancy is a gimmick and doesn’t add any value to a discussion of the Bible’s truth claims.
The Bible contains doctrine, moral commandments, and testimony to historical events. The doctrine and moral commandments are both of the highest authority. They are final and supreme. They can be further developed (as in the Creeds), but they cannot be repealed or contradicted without direct intervention by Jesus Christ himself, appearing and speaking in his own proper person. And both doctrine and moral commandments hinge upon those divine appearances and the apostolic testimony to them. At bottom, it is the historical events – particularly the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – which give authority to the rest of the Bible’s testimony. And in judging the truth claims of an event like the resurrection, we cannot appeal to inerrancy.
To take an ordinary example of how we examine historical truth claims, let us suppose that we are staying at an old, charming house – now an inn, or a bed and breakfast – which bears a sign in the window, saying, “George Washington slept here.” How do we know that is true? Well, we can check people’s diaries and newspaper accounts from the time to determine Washington’s movements. If we can’t find a contemporary account or an eye-witness’s later testimony, we can at least establish the date from which the claim started to be made. If the owners of the house began publicizing Washington’s overnight occupancy in, say, 1810, that’s pretty good evidence, if not definitive. After all, they could have been lying or mistaken, but in 1810 there were still a lot of people around who had known Washington and had traveled with him at the time alleged; if the claim was publicized then and not contradicted by witnesses in a position to weigh in on it, we are inclined to let it stand. But arguing for the inerrancy of the notice in the window, or its publisher, adds nothing to make what the sign says more likely to be true.
In Paul’s defense before the Roman Governor Festus and King Herod Agrippa, this is precisely the kind of argument Paul makes. When Festus says that Paul is mad, he replies that there are living witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and that Agrippa knows all about it. “These things were not done in a corner,” he says. It’s only been about thirty years since the event itself. It doesn’t take belief in Paul’s personal vision of Christ to establish the ordinary historical event as true. Paul doesn’t even cite the Old Testament Scriptures except in passing; and of course, the New Testament hadn’t been completed yet. Inerrancy, even of “the original autographs” is entirely beside the point here.
And how do we know about the event – the resurrection itself - and Paul’s defense of it? By establishing the reliability of the New Testament, as a text written within living memory and recording facts that other witnesses could have challenged at the time. And how do we know that the NT itself was not made up long after and/or meddled with? Because the NT is the best-attested document from antiquity. There are 13,000 early copies or portions to establish the text. There are even a few references outside the Christian community that talk about events testified to within the NT. None of this requires an inerrant Bible to establish. The Bible’s authority – especially the New Testament’s authority – comes from the apostles’ witness to, and instruction by, the risen Christ. If that event is true, then the doctrine and moral commandments present themselves as binding upon those who believe the event.
So why the talk of inerrancy? Two reasons. First, the Protestant Reformation posited a Bible whose authority trumped that of the Pope and other ecclesiastical officials. It had to be conceived of as prior to Church tradition, instead of as part of the tradition. Second, when the liberal higher critics began challenging the Bible’s integrity in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as a way of challenging the authority of Protestant preachers, those preachers responded with the doctrine of inerrancy. The liberal critics had invented a test that the Bible was guaranteed to fail; they had rigged the inquiry. The conservatives therefore invented a test that the Bible was guaranteed to pass; which just meant, rigging the inquiry in the other direction.
The truth of the resurrection can be argued on the same basis as that of George Washington’s repose. It’s either true, or it’s not. Claiming inerrancy for the words of the testimony is begging the question.